– Summary –
Director : Guy Ritchie
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong
Awards : Nominated: Academy Awards – Best Original Score and Best Art Direction. Wins: Golden Globes – Robert Downey Jr. for Best Actor.
Approx Running Time : 124 Minutes
Synopsis: London detective Sherlock Holmes, together with his associate Doctor Watson, must uncover the secret behind the evil plans of Lord Blackwood, a man who has defeated death and appears ready to plunge England into a reign of terror.
What we think : Slick, modern update of Conan Doyle’s classic sleuth, Robert Downey inhabiting the role and making it his own (like almost every other role he touches). Deft humour, a great central villain, underplaying a completely unwarranted female character, make Sherlock Holmes a good, if not altogether great, action/mystery film.
Oh how I lament the years we lost having Robert Downey Jr. on our movie screens, due to his drug and jail issues. He is such a prodigious talent, his ability so beautiful to watch, he makes the art of acting seem so effortless. His recent resurgence in films like Zodiac, Iron Man (and its sequel) and now Sherlock Holmes, makes me glad he’s straightened himself out. In a way, the same can be said of director Guy Ritchie, whose work while married to Madonna was less than exemplary. In fact, the dearth of work from Ritchie during his “married period” indicates just how much of an influence the pop queen had on him. Now he’s free to pursue more work, and it’s starting to be seen. After Rock’nRolla came and went with a whimper (which is a pity, because Rock’n’Rolla isn’t a bad film!) he turned to an update of Sherlock Holmes. And what an update!
Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.), and his good friend Doctor Watson (Jude Law) open the film tracking down and arresting chief bad-guy Lord Blackwell (Mark Strong), a man who appears to have control over some kind of black magic. After Blackwell is hung, and then comes back to life, the mystery deepens even further. Holmes must uncover a plot of destroy the government of England and see the power usurped by a mysterious organisation known as the Temple Of the Four Orders, a secret society who believe in the powers of magic and such. The arrival of Holmes’ one-time love interest, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) throws further complications at us, since she’s in the employ of a mysterious unseen individual who seems intent on causing Holmes as much confusion as possible. Together, both Holmes and Watson must use their deductive skills, and considerable fighting prowess, to thwart the plans of Blackwood and his cronies, and save England once again from the forces of evil.
There’s plenty to enjoy about this film; the cast are uniformly great, and the production design (which was rightly nominated for an Oscar) is superb. Robert Downey Jr. makes Sherlock Holmes his own, eschewing the characters’ famous tweed jacket and cap for a more realistic black number, and giving the man some foibles. I only use the word foibles when it’s in keeping with the period of the film. Holmes is a scrapper, a layabout, and in this modern age of anti-smoking campaigns, Holmes only barely gets a chance to smoke that famous pipe. Jude Law makes a convincing Watson, the perfect character foil to Holmes more anarchistic and flawed nature. Watson is the straight man, the eye-rolling medical man who sees in Holmes a talent wasted by drink, brawling and general self-indulgence. Indeed, Downey Jr. gives Holmes the intellectual searching for a challenge feeling the character so badly needs. After all, Holmes is a genius (and knows it, what’s more!) and his brain requires constant motivation. Mark Strong, as the evil Lord Blackwood, appears in yet another Ritchie production, and does a great job with the little he has to work with. A scene with him in prison, talking to Holmes through the cell bars, is magnificently creepy, and Strong’s natural screen presence is used to the best possible way here. Rachel McAdams, as Holmes’ femme fatale (and who only made on appearance in the Holmes chronology in print) Irene Adler, is utterly wasted, however. Her performance barely registers, and isn’t in the same league as her fellow male counterparts. The character itself seems to be shoehorned into the script to give the film a female face, which while admirable, isn’t accounted for by the director. The double-cross storyline of Adler and Holmes (featuring the aforementioned mysterious man) may have been seeding for the inevitable sequel (indeed, the final sequence in the film is pointing straight at another film!) but for this film, it’s confusing and not required. The character offers us nothing, is poorly developed and badly handled by Ritchie, who seems unable to generate any sexual, romantic or conflicting tension between the two men and the girl. Watson, whose spends most of the film mooning over fiancée Mary (a wonderful Kelly Reilly), isn’t the slightest bit interested in Irene, and Holmes himself seems more bemused than aggravated by her presence: the poorly conceived reasoning for her to be in the film hamstrings what was an otherwise great script from the writers.
Set in Victorian London, and featuring numerous shots of a half-completed Tower Bridge to give us the period, the film barrels along at top speed for its entire running time, barely pausing for breath, and only then to allow the character development of Holmes and Watson to bubble along. The settings and locations used for the film are magnificent, lending an air of genuine realism to the piece which a sound-stage could not. Enormous docks, boats and other pre-1900’s buildings dot the landscape, their shadowy value adding to the tone of the film. The grimy nature of Whitechapel and other areas of London make for fascinating period detail. The final chase sequence, however, which takes place between Westminster Palace (or, British Parliament) and the Tower Bridge, is covered far too easily. Irene runs from the base of the Parliament building and up onto the Bridge without even seeming to be puffed: I know myself, having walked the distance between the two iconic locations, that it’s more than a five minute run and actually around a significant bend in the Thames. You could say this was artistic licence by Ritchie, but as a shortcut it stands out. Londoners would probably notice it as well.
One of the best features of this film is its dialogue. While the character of Irene may be superfluous to the plot and the movie overall, the dialogue isn’t: it’s essential. Holmes’ dissection of his own fighting techniques, and the way he can out-think any opponent, is handled well by Ritchie’s deft direction, and the scripting sparkles with a sense of whimsy and classic farcical verbosity. The banter between Holmes and Watson, or perhaps Holmes and anybody, is indeed razor sharp and delivered perfectly by Downey Jr., making this film a treat for both ear and eye. Even the bad guys get great lines, especially Mark Strong as Blackwood, whose glowering visage seems to penetrate the very screen with its searing gaze. The way the actors all manage to get their tongues around such delightful dialogue makes for a great film.
Another point to raise is Hans Zimmer’s captivating score. I write recently in my review of Inception (here) that I felt Zimmer’s work over the last decade or so has been a little hit-and-miss, almost like he’s recycling a lot of ideas and producing nothing truly original. I’m pleased to say that with both Inception, and now Sherlock Holmes, Zimmer makes a return to the A-list. His score on Holmes is brilliant, a rattling stringed orchestration that highlights the scatterbrained performance of Doweny Jr., the comedic nature of the performances overall, and the slick, stylish production design. It’s a score most suited to the devil-may-care attitude of Holmes himself.
As mentioned, among the issues Holmes has is the inclusion of a female role which is poorly conceived from the beginning, and entirely without use to the story. Irene could have been left out of the plot and the film may have been the better for it. Aside from this, however, the film does tend to lack a real sense of occasion at times. Ritchie is so desperate to get to the next action sequence or deductive beat that he often forgets to flesh out his characters to make them seem more realistic. Ideally, a lot more back-story between Watson and Holmes may have assisted, and the byplay between the two skips anything resembling a casual conversation, instead concentrating on “the case” and its fundamentals. Law seems to be in awe of his co-star at times, almost underplaying Watson at times, to his own detriment. Downey Jr. again displays the talent he’s so effortlessly exudes in the role of Holmes, and almost upstages his fellow actor. McAdams can’t get any traction in her character, because it’s so poorly written. The fight sequences are bombastic and cleverly executed, and the stunts, effects and explosions all high quality. Indeed, even the obvious green screen moments (atop the Tower Bridge, for example) don’t feel too forced, giving the viewing audience the sense that this could all have actually happened. It’s a pleasure to watch this film, at least from a technical point of view.
I’ve read some articles on the film which have criticised it for lacking the calm, magnifying glass wielding detective of stiff-upper-lip-edness, and I have to say, I’d rather watch this version that some of the originals. The stoic, calm and unflappable generic Holmes character would be a complete bore to modern audiences. No doubt purists would be aghast at what Ritchie has done, but in his defense I’d say he’s brought the character into the modern era (which would have to have happened to be a success) and given us a delightfully idiosyncratic, devilishly cool, vagabond detective with a penchant for bare-knuckle fighting. Sherlock Holmes is a slick, classy winner.